Android hidden gems #1 - PhoneMarks

If you know me, you know that Android is my mobile operating system of choice.  In my ongoing quest to convert the zombie hordes of Apple fanboys, I will be posting regular reviews of amazing-but-largely-unknown Android applications that iPhone users can't have because Steve Jobs wears his turtlenecks too tight.  Today we're highighting PhoneMarks, an Android app with a matching Chrome browser extension.

Here's what it does:  You install an app on the phone and an extension in your desktop browser.  Then you set up a folder in your Chrome bookmarks and go through a short setup process on the phone.  From that point forward, your bookmarks on your phone can be managed via the desktop browser.  Just drop a new bookmark in the folder and click "sync", and your phone's bookmarks are automagically updated.

Why do this?  Well, in spite of how far mobile browsing has come, browsing on a proper desktop is still better, and likely will be for the forseeable future.  Managing bookmarks on a mobile device is a clunky process due to screen size limitations, and this methodology lets you keep your phone's bookmarks all nice and tidy from the comfort of your full-sized keyboard.  Oh, and the feature set that allows this to happen is mysteriously absent from the iOS platform.

Android Market download:

Chrome Extension download:

Dear State Farm

This guy creeps me out.

Please do something about  him.


My favorite photo from a recent outing

Taken by me on October 17th, 2010 at Atlanta Cemetery, Atlanta, IL

In defense of the gray areas

I want my world to be well defined.  I want clear cut, black and white, right and wrong, good and bad.  I want us versus them, good guys versus bad guys, heroes versus villains, etc.  I want it to be clear what the right thing is to do, but that isn't often the case.

I have long considered myself libertarian-leaning, even once being a card-carrying member of the official party.  I really like the sound of the phrase "less government at nearly any cost".  I voted for Ron Paul... as a write-in vote in the general election.

That said, I find myself saying "There aught to be a law" more and more often.  I notice myself enjoying the safety, convenience, and efficiency of the world around me, most of which is in place because of some government agency somewhere.  I see brilliant emerging technologies that would benefit the entire world get buried by some mega-corporation that recognizes it as a threat, and I wish for more government control.

When I was younger, the rules were simpler.  You voted for the republican candidate because that's what white Christians do.  Now it's more complicated.  I rarely like any of the candidates, often liking the republicans least of all.  Voting for the lesser of all evils seems like a lousy way to do things, and as such I'm  having quite a lot of trouble even knowing who to root for in the pending elections.  I'm disenfranchised perhaps, but more than anything I'm becoming increasingly aware of the fact that a well-defined platform that spans all issues is no longer valid.  I want to be able to side with the democrats on issues A, D, and F, while siding with the republicans on issues B, C, and E.  I want to be able to vote on issues, not on people.

It feels like we're being asked to pick our favorite two or three hot button issues, determine how we feel about them, line up with the party that comes closest, then just parrot back the stance of the party for everything from that point forward.  It's clumsy and it feels like being herded.  I don't like it.  I'm not interested in voting for the most-likely-to-win member of whatever party panders to my demographic most successfully.  I want to elect my friend Brian to congress.  Check that, I want to draft my friend Brian into congress.  He's a kind soul with a wise outlook who is slow to anger and seeks out information before making decisions.  He'd be great, and as such, he wouldn't last a week.  Neither party would have him.  This makes me grumpy.

It's the year 2010.  Perhaps it's time to start thinking about doing away with the concept of career politicians and instead simply draft our best and brightest into service as senators.  Brian would beg me not to vote for him.  That's why he'd be perfect for the job.

Why I rooted my DROID, and why you should too

I rooted my phone a month ago today, and after several weeks with it, I'm finally taking a moment to write up my thoughts on the experience so far.

Let me start by saying that I loved my phone even before I rooted it.  Android is a well-made operating system and I've been closely watching its development since the Open Handset Alliance was founded several years back.  Not wanting to jump carriers, I waited until Verizon joined the fray with the first DROID handset before buying one, and I've been very pleased.  The interface is elegant, the multitasking is empowering, and the integration with the core set of Google web apps allows my phone to nearly replace a proper desktop computer for all but the most involved tasks.  Apple's iPhone is a design marvel with an arguably slicker interface, but I'm personally sold on the true multitasking and more open market methodology of Android.

That said, even with Google's open source platform powering the system, I occasionally ran into one or two things that I just couldn't do.  Android does not, by default, allow the user to access the core of the system.  Certain folders, mostly those containing actual operating system files, are locked down.  This is for several reasons, not the least of which being that with access to these files, the user could severely break the phone.  Example (and don't you dare do this):  If you were to go into your computer's C:/Windows directory and deleted, say, the System32 folder and everything under it, you'd find your computer to be behaving quite differently after the next reboot.  For this and other reasons, even the mostly open Android operating system does not allow the user carte blanche access to everything.

After doing plenty of reading on the topic, I decided to take the plunge and root my phone.  Here are some of the things I can now do that I couldn't do before:

  • USB Tethering and Wireless Hotspot - Most carriers in the US are worried about allowing people to use their phone's data plans for devices besides the phone.  As such, most either disable Android's USB Tethering and Wireless Hotspot functionality or simply replace Android's default versions of those applications with handicapped versions that validate against some lame subscription-based tethering service that the carrier sells.  With root access, both USB tethering and Wireless Hotspot functionality are wide open, and the carrier has no way of distinguishing tethered data from phone data.
  • CPU over-clocking / under-clocking - My Motorola DROID has an 800MHz processor.  With root access, I can tell the system to push itself a little harder when needed, over-clocking the processor up to about 1100MHz.  Battery life is impacted by this process, but sometimes more power is worth it.  Additionally, I can set the phone up to intentionally under-clock itself when less power is needed.  This scaling-on-demand process ends up saving battery life in the long run, and reduces strain on the CPU when less processing power is needed.
  • Linux Terminal Emulation - Technically this isn't a root-only feature, as you can use a terminal emulator to navigate the Android file system without root.  That said, you need root to be able to do any of the really fun stuff, like removing files that Android otherwise wouldn't let you remove.  See the next item for an example.
  • Removal of bloat-ware - Android doesn't come prepackaged with any garbage applications by default, but some carriers offset the handset cost by loading them up with irremovable applications.  Verizon adds Twitter, Amazon MP3, and Facebook, none of which I want.  Because I have root access, I can remove those applications.  Without root?  They sat there and taunted me.
  • Custom ROMs - Cyanogen, Cyanogen, Cyanogen.  Far and away the best custom Android build available, and I love love love it.  With extremely granular control over interface tweaks, a built-in custom launcher, and the ability to keep the home screen application in memory (something missing from the stock Android build), it's quite simply better in every way.
  • Miscellaneous root-only apps - Cache Cleaner (deep cleans the cache, of course), drocap2 (screenshot capture), LCD Density Changer (adjust your phone's screen resolution), Titanium Backup (backup your apps and data), ROM Manager (easily install custom ROMs and ghost your whole phone to the SD card), and many more.

For me, the upsides far outweighed the very small potential downside of screwing up the phone.  I'm fully thrilled with my phone, and I would recommend rooting to absolutely anyone.  If you have any questions about rooting, please feel free to drop me a note any time.

Ramen noodles and beautiful tumors

Today is the 8th anniversary of my wedding. In roughly seven months, I will reach the point at which a full third of my life has been spent with my wife (including our time dating). We've been together for over 3,500 days, lived in four apartments and two houses, taken in and found homes for seven cats, taken in ten dogs and kept six of them. Since we started dating, I've worked as waiter, a disc jockey, an advertising salesman, a warehouse grunt, a carpet cleaner, a photocopier installer, a mail clerk, a tech support rep, and a programmer. We've owned six different cars, two of which had their engines explode and one of which had a short-lived career as a submarine.

In the last eight years we've rejoiced in the arrival of our beautiful daughter, struggled with becoming a single-income family, retired a bunch of old foolish debt, picked up some new foolish debt, and learned to love Ramen noodles. We've lived with my mother-in-law for several months, lived apart for several months while I looked for work, and lived on opposite schedules for several months while I was working third shift. We beamed with joy as we welcomed our son last year, then cried for fear of the cancer that was found in our daughter the very next day. We have held her hand through surgeries, tests, scans, x-rays, and blood work, and we consider ourselves richly blessed to have a healthy daughter today.

When comparing the last eight years of my life with all the years previous, I can say without hesitation that they have been the hardest eight years to date. There has been more stress, more pain, more worry, more tears, more work, and more fatigue in these years than in any years prior. That said, there has also been more joy, more happiness, and more love in these years than I ever thought possible.

This morning my son, who is teething, chose to celebrate our anniversary by crying his eyes out at 4:15am. As she is prone to do, my wife got up and tended to him without waking me up to ask for help. Several hours later, as I finished getting dressed for work and started heading for the door, I stopped to give my wife a kiss and wish her a happy anniversary. She offered up a feeble smile, clearly exhausted from the short night. In that moment, with bags under her bloodshot eyes, hair a mess, in a wrinkled nightgown covered with baby drool, holding our son, she was to me the most beautiful woman in the world.

We've been through a lot, and if we're lucky, there's a lot more to come. I love you hon. Here's to the next eight years... May they be as wonderful as the last.

A little overweight and long overdue

It was August 8th, 2010.  That was the day... The first day that I really looked at myself and cringed.  I'll explain.

I'm overweight.  Most people would tell you I hide it well, but that doesn't change the fact that I can watch the NFL draft and wonder to myself when pro football players started getting smaller.  My eating habits, at least until very recently have been pretty chaotic.  I ate when I was hungry, I ate when I was bored, I ate when I was sad, tired, happy, wound up, worn down, or war-torn.  The only time I didn't eat was when I was asleep, and I'm pretty sure I regularly dreamed about it.  I love food.  It's so... delicious.  I love pasta, I love bread, I love cheese, sugar, salt, grease, fat, and pretty much anything that can be fried.  Comedian Louis C.K. said in a stand-up routine once, "I don't stop eating when I'm full.  I stop eating when I hate myself."  That was pretty much me as well.  I knew I could stand to lose a few pounds, but it wasn't a priority.

Now it is.  On Sunday, August 8th, I took my wife and kids to DragonLand, a water park in Pekin, IL.  We laid out our blanket in the grass, slathered the kids with sunscreen, and got ready to jump in.  As I was taking off my shirt, I felt something crawl across the top of my foot.  When I looked down to see what it was, my view was obstructed by my gut.

Let's just let that settle into your head for a moment.  I was unable to see my feet because my rotund belly was in the way.  To be fair, I was all relaxed and just letting it hang out there, and a quick sucking-in of my massive middle was all it took to restore visual confirmation that I still had feet, and that there was an ant crawling across one of them.  That said, it was still upsetting.  I had never noticed myself needing to visually negotiate my way around my own gut before.  This was new.  This was no good.  I wanted more than anything else just to put my shirt back on, for fear of scaring the children with my Jabba the Hutt impersonation.  I went on anyway, playing with Bella and Brady in the water, but that moment stuck with me for the rest of the day and into the evening.

The next morning, I got up at 5am and took my dog Simon for a walk, and I've done so every day since.  Wait, let's temper that last statement a bit.  Simon takes me for walks.  Simon is our largest and least-well-trained dog.  As such, I'm quite sure that my caloric burn is directly proportional to the number of rabbits we see each morning.  I downloaded an app for my phone that lets me keep track of every single calorie that I consume, and I've gotta tell you, the math is sorta liberating.  Previously, I could not have even approximated my daily caloric intake.  I couldn't have remembered what I ate for the previous meal, largely because I had eaten a meal's worth of snacks since then.  Now, I can pull up my caloric budget at a whim and punch in foods while I'm at the office or out and about.  I feel better.  I'm a little tired, but I understand that's mostly because my body is required to eat my gut to compensate for the sudden decrease in calories.

My wife, either inspired by my sudden lifestyle change or somehow guilt-tripped by it, has started working out and watching her food intake as well.  We both have set calorie budgets, and work to come in reasonably under-budget every day.  We made several new dinners this past weekend, all low-cal, low-fat options that we would have felt no urge to try just two weeks ago.

All of this is well and good, but will I stick with it?  Well, I don't know.  I'm trying not to refer to this as a diet.  I'd rather consider this just a new way of thinking when it comes to eating and exercise.  I'd like to think that even if I hit my goal weight, I'll just recalibrate my calorie budget with a "hold steady" plan in place.  I guess we'll see how I do.  I will say that at 8 days and counting, this is already the longest I've stuck with any exercise/eating plan.

No, I'm not going to turn this blog into a health journal.  I'll still post largely my passive-aggressive musings on the world in general.  I do reserve the right to boast if I hit any major milestones, however.
Blogger Theme by BloggerThemes & Chethstudios
Design by Metalab